Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein answer a question from the media during the State of the Air Force address at the Pentagon, Nov. 9, 2017. Air Force photo by SSgt. Rusty Frank.
The Air Force has suspended most media embeds, base visits, and a large number of interviews while its public affairs officers undergo an operational security and “public engagement reset” that takes into account a return to the “great power competition” as outlined in the National Defense Strategy.
Brig. Gen. Ed Thomas, the director of public affairs in the Office of the Secretary of the Air Force, told Air Force Magazine the directive is “not a freeze” and that the service continues “to do many press engagements daily. We are, however, conducting training to ensure we are aligned appropriately with the principles outlined in the NDS.” Thomas said “much of the training,” which is a requirement for continued media engagement, “is actually already complete,” and the rest should be complete in the “next few weeks.”
Public affairs officers are authorized to engage with news media and via social media “for human interest stories, personality features, or career-related personnel information,” but they must get prior approval from the Secretary of the Air Force/Public Affairs at the Pentagon before responding to any queries “regarding operations, training or exercises, readiness, or other issues which may reveal operational information to potential adversaries,” according to the documents posted on the Air Force Forum Facebook page, a widely read but unofficial Facebook site.
The guidance, which was first reported by Defense News, received immediate backlash from both trade and national-level media organizations, as well as those on Capitol Hill.
AFA’s Chairman of the Board and former USAF Secretary F. Whitten Peters said restricting information, though sometimes necessary, “should be the exception and not the rule.”
“The new guidance from the Air Force will prohibit the Air Force from telling its story. We are a country at war and we need to tell the nation the important work the Air Force is doing around the globe on a daily basis,” said Peters.
AFA President and former USAF Vice Chief of Staff retired Gen. Larry Spencer agreed the Air Force must carefully balance the need to protect classified information with the need to keep the public informed.
“We must keep America’s Air Force strong and ready and to do so requires frequent and consistent communications with the public,” said Spencer. “I hope the Air Force completes its ‘reset’ training quickly so they can resume communications with those taxpayers who deserve to know how they can make their Air Force better.”
Air Force officials did not respond to questions on whether the public outreach restrictions also apply to its communications with Congress. The service has had a long, rocky relationship with Congress, which has often complained the service fails to adequately communicate with lawmakers on major changes such as system retirements, mission or organizational swaps, and programmatic cost jumps. In return, USAF officials—along with the rest of the Defense Department—lament the lack of stable budgets, which makes planning extremely difficult.
“Any public affairs officer must strike a careful balance between protecting sensitive information and the transparency and accountability that makes our system and our society so special. Additional training and education of PAOs may be useful, but the answer is not to shut off the public’s access to information while that is underway,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) told Air Force Magazine in an e-mailed statement. “Public support for our defense efforts depends on a public that understands the threats and what our military personnel are working to accomplish. They gain that understanding largely through the media.”
Thomas emphasized that USAF is “fully committed” and “passionate about” its “duty and obligation to communicate to the American people,” noting the Defense Department’s “principles of ‘maximum disclosure with minimum delay’ remain foremost as we provide transparency while protecting operational security.”